Monday, 20 February 2012

Royal Company – review in Free Church Record

The following review of my book Royal Company appears in the March issue of The Record of the Free Church of Scotland. It is written by Dr. Iain D. Campbell.
In spite of the difficulties of handling the text, the Song of Solomon was a frequently commented on, and frequently preached on, book of the Bible until fairly modern times. Recently, however, it has suffered from something of a neglect in pulpits, with those evangelical ministers brave enough to preach from it not quite sure how to handle it.
At one level it is not difficult to see why this should be so. The text of the Song of Solomon is evidently written around the theme of love. Even here, preachers and scholars have been divided over whether the love is between a woman and the King, or whether the king is in fact the villain who is keeping the woman in his harem and away from her true love.
Malcolm Maclean has no difficulty with this question. The love celebrated in the song is between the sovereign and the lady, whose affections he has won and drawn to himself.
Nor does he have difficulty with the next question. Once you have established the storyline behind the song, how do you get from there to Jesus? After all, evangelical preachers know that all Scripture is profitable only insofar as the written Word sheds light for us on the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. So is the king in the Song a type of Jesus? Is this poem an allegory about Jesus? Or is it suggestive of Jesus just because it is in the Bible?
Malcolm Maclean is not too concerned to justify his devotional work on the Song by dealing with such technicalities of exegesis. His consistent aim is to use the text of the Song to elevate our thoughts about Jesus and to shed light on our relationship of love to him.
The strength of this spiritual element in Malcolm Maclean’s book more than compensates for the lack of a justification for his method and style. In fact, of the devotional works I have consulted on the Song, this work is among the most rich in its suggestive allusions and its preachable material.
Deep in feeling and wide in application, this book shows a preacher’s heart as well as a preacher’s art. It makes no apology for opening up the Song as a commentary on the intimacy that ought to characterise our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. Some may find the application too stretched in places, but so be it. This is devotional literature in the best Puritan tradition, allowing the illustrations, colours and sounds of the Song to be opened up in the light of the wider Scripture.
So, for example, the king’s description of his lady has having doves’ eyes in Song 1:15 is opened up with reference to ways in which the Bible speaks about the dove (pp. 62-65); while the description of the lady as a garden in 4:12-15 is opened up with reference to the way the Bible describes the believer as a fruit-bearer (pp. 151-153). This way of handling the text is a lesson in the way Scripture ought to be used to illustrate Scripture.
While some may quibble with the application of some passages, there is no doubt that Malcolm Maclean is doing something quite brave here: he is taking a text of Scripture and unashamedly applying it to the realm of Christian experience. Increasingly, evangelical preaching has shied away from such activity, preferring to make the sermon equal to the sum of the meaning of the words.
But this book reminds us that there is more to Bible words than their meaning. Christ’s words are living; they are spirit and they are life. As such, they touch our souls and move our hearts. Royal Company reminds us that there are such things as religious affections, and is enthusiastic about stirring them up.
Towards the end of the book, Malcolm Maclean writes: ‘The Christian life can be described in many ways. It is a race, a fight, an ascent; it is also a romance in which the Beloved comes and visits the one he loves’ (p. 224). His book may not satisfy every student of the Song of Solomon, but as a devotional work on this wonderful book of the Bible, it will kindle afresh our desire for such visits of King Jesus to our souls. At once heart-warming and soul-stirring, it will also enable us to search our hearts and return to our first love.
Iain D Campbell

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Royal Company

Christian Focus Publications are about to publish my book on the Song of Solomon called Royal Company. In it, I consider how Solomon's poems picture the relationship between Jesus and his people.

I suppose I can say that the contents are the results of almost forty years of thinking about how a Christian interacts with his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The earliest sermon that I can remember as a Christian was one on Song of Solomon 2:1, where the King describes himself as the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys. And I know what I heard then still comes to my heart with power – it as if someone wants me to think about it often.

During the first two decades of my Christian journey I frequently heard sermons and devotional addresses on the Song of Solomon, and enjoyed them all. I have not heard many in the last couple of decades. I don't believe the church has benefitted from that change of emphasis.

If you wish to read the introduction, it is found here.

Concerning the book, there are endorsements by, in alphabetical order, Peter Barnes, Joel R. Beeke, Sharon James, David Meredith, Alec Motyer and Geoff Thomas. I am grateful for their comments, even although they don't agree with everything I have said. So here they are, if you would like to read what they have to say.

Peter Barnes
Malcolm Maclean has sought to interpret the Song of Songs as a description of Christ and his people rather than as a love song. In doing so, he stands in a distinguished line of biblical interpreters, including James Durham, George Burrowes, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Alexander Moody Stuart, James Hudson Taylor, and Charles Spurgeon. It must be acknowledged that Ephesians 5:22-33 lends some considerable support to this now largely rejected approach. Even those who are unconvinced by the old approach – and I am one – will find this devotional work rich, powerful, and incisive, and will find it a challenge and a help to their souls.

Joel R. Beeke
The poetry of the Song of Songs invites us into the greatest love story ever written. It is the love song of the King and his bride. Malcolm Maclean leads us in a sweet yet sober tour of this garden of divine love. He walks us through the Song devotionally, moving believers to long for deeper communion with the Son of God. Simultaneously, this book will encourage backsliders to run back into his loving arms.

Sharon James
The beautiful reality of human married love was always intended by our Creator to be a temporary visual aid to illustrate the eternal love of Christ for the Church (Eph. 5:32). The Song of Songs has traditionally been understood as a glorious exploration of this theme (as well as a lovely depiction of married love). During the twentieth century the evangelical church was profoundly affected in many ways by the surrounding subjective and therapeutic culture, whereby human happiness was regarded as the central end in life. Unsurprisingly the Song of Songs was often reduced to being viewed as a purely human encounter between two lovers. This wonderful book retrieves the Song, unlocking its timeless truths in a way which inspires greater love for Christ and for his Church. It is a powerful reminder of the glory of Christ’s matchless love, and provides strong medicine for the soul.

David Meredith
It is no exaggeration to say that I have looked for this book for the whole of my Christian life! I have often strolled in the foothills of the Song of Solomon but Malcolm MacLean takes us up into the rarefied heights and gives us new vistas of the beauty and excellence of Christ. A fundamental desire which all believers must have at the beginning of reading a book or listening to a sermon is, ‘Sirs, we want to see Jesus.’ This longing is more than answered by this book which appears to be the work of a Christ-obsessive. The sheer loveliness of Christ is found on virtually every line. Judicious cross-referencing to other portions of scripture as well as allusions to a robust theological framework convince us that Royal Company is far from fanciful in its interpretation. Maclean succeeds in showing that, ‘Christ wishes to influence our emotions as well as inform our minds.’ I cannot think of a healthier note to be sounded to contemporary evangelicalism.

The other strengths of Royal Company are that it steers a road between some of the sugar of past interpreters but avoids the spice of some contemporary ‘expositors’. It also engages and graciously critiques the giants of the past like Durham, Burrows and Moody Stuart. It draws from the past and applies to the present. There is a paucity of decent expositions on the Song and it would not surprise me if this becomes a standard devotional work as well as a vital help to those of us who preach Christ glorious and crushed.

 Alec Motyer
The Bible abounds in symbols, each of which – Shepherd, King, Lover, Husband, Lion, Lamb, etc., – exists to enhance our knowledge of God and our intimacy with him. Please let it come as no surprise to you that within the Bible there is one whole book in which symbols – and not only the marriage symbol – crowd together and cry out for interpretation. With Malcolm Maclean we are in safe hands. To be sure, his treatment of the Song extends interpretation into elaboration and application, and he will not carry every reader with him all the time, but everything he writes is true to the full biblical revelation of God in Christ, of the marvel of his love for us, and of our often faltering walk with him. Throughout he leaves us with strong aspirations to know Jesus better, to love him more deeply and steadily, and to grow in his truth and grace. And not aspirations only; his work helps us to achieve as well as aspire. He will put every reader deeply in his debt.

Geoff Thomas
A former teacher of mine reminds us how the Song of Solomon comes to us in this world of sin, where lust and passion are on every side, where fierce temptations assail us and try to turn us from the God-given standard of marriage, and this book reminds us, in a particularly beautiful fashion, of how pure and noble true love is. But the God who put this book in the canon of Scripture, has also placed love in the human heart. He is himself pure, and so the Song of Solomon also turns one’s eyes to the Lord Jesus Christ. The eye of faith, as it beholds this picture of exalted human love, is reminded constantly of the one love that is above all human affection, that ‘love divine all loves excelling’ which is the love of the Son of God for the church, his bride. We sing the words, ‘From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.’ He sought us because he loved us, and he loves us still. Cecil Alexander wrote, ‘Oh dearly, dearly has he loved, and we should love him too.’ How we should love him for all that he is and all that he has done – with ourselves seeing so small a part of his love. How can we love him more? The Song of Solomon can assist us, and Malcolm Maclean’s lucid and warm commentary on the book led me into some royal communion with the King of kings. It will help every Christian reader to rest in his love and say with grander assurance, ‘This is my beloved and this is my friend.’